Tuesday, November 18, 2008

People Who Are Terrible at their Jobs: ESPN's Gregg Easterbrook

BOULDER, Colorado -- The New Republic's senior editor Gregg Easterbrook writes a laughably-uninformed column about football each week for ESPN.com, entitled "Tuesday Morning Quarterback." This week, he tackles the issue of close goal line calls. Easterbrook argues in favor of some sort of electronic tracking system to remove the element of human error in scoring plays. Here is his case:
If swim meets and horse races can be photo-timed to the hundredth of a second, it is ridiculous that the football world has to argue about whether a ball crossed a line. Some kind of radio chip embedded in footballs, and weighing next to nothing, could surely provide a GPS-like readout on whether the ball touched some kind of electronically projected line in front of the end zone and along a field's sidelines. Considering the state of miniature electronics, this doesn't seem as if it would be very hard to do. College engineering departments surely would compete for the right to design such a system. The system might prove too expensive for high schools and small colleges, but with all the money involved in the NFL and in football-factory colleges, the price of adding electronic sensing would be small by comparison. So let's insert a chip in the football!
In other words, "If two totally different sports can use technology to solve a completely unrelated problem, then why can't football?" Your logic is impeccible.

If you think about it at all, or bother to do any research, it actually is quite hard. FIFA, the world governing body for soccer, experimented extensively with placing RFID chips in balls for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Adidas had developed a system that involved placing a chip in the center of the ball and 12 antennae along the goal posts and crossbar. When the ball crosses the touchline, a signal is sent to a watch worn by the match referee. Ultimately, the system was scrapped because of reliability issues - Adidas had problems keeping the fragile chip positioned inside the ball as it was rocketed around the field. Add to these problems the fact that in football, there are 22 men, all of them well north of 200 hundred pounds, piling on top of this ball as it is stretched across the goal line.

This is not "Medieval Times," Gregg, but it is a simple issue of technology, and the technology does not yet exist with any degree of feasibility or reliability to replace visual confirmation of the ball crossing the line. In addition, as he admits, there are many other considerations in football, like the position of the ball carrier's body and the position of the ball in his hands, that go into ruling on a touchdown that make this one tiny bit of information that an RFID chip might yield basically useless.

One of the most important elements of football remains highly subjective - where the referee spots the football after each down - and no one believes we should find some "electronic fix" for it. Spots are often reviewed, but only at the behest of the officiating crew, not the teams. In this area, the ref's discretion is sacrosanct. I am not arguing for a referee's right to ignore evidence to get a call wrong, as opponents of video replay do. This is just wrong-headed and stubborn. But in sports, many things come down to a referee's judgment - like spotting - and I do not think this technology, as it currently stands, will allow an official to make a better-informed call. I think referees should be able to use every bit of video technology to get the call right, but if nobody saw it cross the line, either on the field or on TV, it isn't a touchdown.

It turns out almost all of the commenters on this piece agree with me, though many make much more sophisticated and interesting arguments about the shortcomings of RFID technology.

In the interest of full disclosure, part of the reason that I dislike Mr. Easterbook so much is his relentless criticism of the New England Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick. He likened the coach to Richard Nixon, called Michael Vick more honorable for owning up to his mistakes (when he was staring down six federal felony charges), and believes that Belichick is the worst serial cheater in sports history (in the NFL, I believe that honor belongs to Broncos boss Mike Shanahan, who drills his players in the criminal art of cut blocking).

So, just for spite, I will direct you all to Easterbrook's Wikipedia page and ask you to compare that photo with one he uses on ESPN.com.

No comments:

Post a Comment